A 24-second video posted online on New Year’s Eve of two young Italian women, who were kidnapped by Islamic militants in northern Syria last summer, is prompting alarm among Italian officials who have been negotiating for the pair’s release.
The idealistic aid volunteers Vanessa Marzullo and Greta Ramelli, both in their 20s, appear considerably thinner and paler and dressed in black chadors, leaving just their faces and hands uncovered, they beg in the brief video for the Italian government to get them home.
Uploaded to YouTube with the title “Al Nusra Front detains two Italian employees because of their government’s participation in the coalition against it,” the video appears to have been shot in mid-December. In the video Marzullo is seen holding up a piece of paper that has “17.12.14 Wednesday” scrawled across it while Ramelli reads a written statement appealing to the Italian government to get them home quickly.
“We supplicate our government and its mediators to bring us home before Christmas. We are in big danger and we could be killed. The government and mediators are responsible for our lives,” she says.
The Italian foreign ministry has declined to comment on the video. The foreign ministry would not confirm to The Daily Beast whether they believe the video is authentic or whether they believe the date is accurate. The Italian news agency ANSA cited an unnamed intelligence source saying “we are in a very delicate phase and we ask the maximum discretion at this time.”
But a Rome-based senior Italian diplomat told the Daily Beast that the timing of the video’s posting is perplexing officials, who had thought they were a hair’s breadth away from completing successful negotiations for the women’s release.
And there is rising concern among officials that the aid volunteers, who were snatched by gunmen in northern Syria’s Aleppo province in August, are at increasing risk of being drawn into complicated jihadist politics in the war-torn country and traded by their captors to the more powerful Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS—the militant group responsible for beheading American journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff and three Western aid workers, including American Peter Kassig. Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper has claimed the women have been sold twice already during their captivity.
“There’s surprise at the captors’ decision to upload this video now,” said the diplomat, who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition he not be identified. “Obviously it is meant to put pressure on us but it may be more connected with the captors need to display their hostage trophies for reasons of internal jihadist politics and maneuvering.”
The diplomat wouldn’t comment on exactly who is holding 20-year-old Marzullo and 21-year-old Ramelli.
There have been reports in the Arab press that the women’s captors are an independent group of Islamic militants connected to Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, but not formally part of it. And the manner of the release of the video on New Year’s Eve and the lack of sophistication in its shooting would appear to give some credence to those claims. The video includes no al-Nusra logos and it has not appeared on websites associated with the al-Qaeda affiliate nor been promoted on Twitter accounts used by the militant group.
Hostages in northern Syria have been used almost as “currency” before, and several released European hostages have talked about being traded and passed between different militants during their captivity—although ISIS appears always to trade for Western hostages and never to exchange them with other militants.
Since the U.S.-led coalition launched airstrikes against ISIS and two waves of attacks against Jabhat al-Nusra, jihadist politics and deal-making have shifted and autonomous groups of Islamic militants have increasingly come under pressure to relinquish their independence. There have also been signs of efforts to bridge the schism between al-Nusra and the al-Qaeda breakaway ISIS, which was disavowed by al-Qaeda’s overall leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, last winter following disputes over strategy and amid personality clashes.
One of the fears of Italian officials now is that Marzullo and Ramelli could be traded or used as bargaining chips between jihadists.
Speaking to reporters in Rome, the Speaker of Italy’s House of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, characterized the New Year’s Eve video as an SOS from the pair. “The girls send a cry for help…the situation of these girls is distressing.”
Salvatore Marzullo, Vanessa’s father said in a taped statement: “We have seen these images, the first of Vanessa and Greta in months, they seem ok even in spite of their difficult situation…there aren’t many words to say now other than that we were glad to see them alive.”
Since the women’s abduction—they were seized on their second trip into Syria, along with an Italian journalist who managed to escape—their families have been careful when talking to the media. They have followed generally the instructions of the Italian foreign ministry to say little and have confined their comments to explaining why the young women felt they had to cofound the Hooryaty Project to deliver medical goods to Syria.
Family members have said they pleaded with the women not to head to Syria.
When you hear your daughter say, ‘Mom, in that country they are killing children so I must go and help,’ what can you say?” Antonella Ramelli, Greta’s mother, wrote on her Facebook page. “Can you change your daughter who has these values and strong ideals about solidarity and human empathy? Should you?”
Speaking to a local radio station today Antonella Ramelli said the video gives her hope. She had feared the girls were dead. In the wake of the beheading of James Foley, the captives’ families lost hope that hostage negotiators at the Italian foreign ministry would secure the girls’ release, with Antonella Ramelli telling reporters that she was “doubly worried.”
There has been criticism in Italy of the women’s decision to plunge into freelance aid work in Syria with claims that neither was well prepared for the complexity and danger of what they would confront (both are students). Their kidnapping has had a major impact on Italian NGOs, with the country’s foreign ministry pressuring aid volunteers not to go to Syria.
Italy has paid to get hostages released in the past and the Italian hostage negotiators —there is a unit of them in the foreign ministry—have been successful in getting several Italians held captive by either al Nusra or ISIS freed. Italy’s president Giorgio Napolitano, who is approaching retirement, appears determined to get the two freed before he leaves office.